Posts Tagged ‘Civil Society’

Coal Declines Worldwide – Even in China

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

 

“Worldwide, for every new coal plant built, two have been shelved or cancelled since 2010…. In China, coal use declined in 2014, signaling the start of a shift towards greater reliance on renewable energy. And, in the U.S., over 77,000 megawatts of coal energy have retired or are slated to retire.”

This good news comes from Boom and Bust: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline, published this week by CoalSwarm and the Sierra Club. The report, together with a new online interactive map, Global Coal Tracker, describes the state of coal use worldwide.

A Chinese language version of the Global Coal Tracker was released this week as well as part of a new website–meiyouwenti.org (“The Coal Problem”). This new online resource shares information on China’s coal industry and the health and environmental impacts of coal.

Coal Tracker

A Chinese-language version of the Global Coal Tracker shows proposed coal power plants and their development status across China.

 

China’s central government has signaled a commitment to reducing the country’s reliance on coal, but this alone won’t be enough.

The coal tracker shows that while some provinces have canceled projects in an effort to improve air quality, other provinces are lagging behind. What is surprising to see is that even some of China’s wealthiest provinces (e.g., Jiangsu and Guangdong) have ramped up their use of coal power in recent years, rather than switching to a cleaner (and healthier) energy mix. The coal tracker also suggests that local governments are still incentivized to cash in on coal, and that a lot more coal-fired power plants are being built in China than are needed to meet energy demand.

Pacific Environment and our partner Waterkeeper Alliance support a network of grassroots organizations that are watch-dogging the coal industry to increase industry transparency and push for better implementation of environmental laws, national and regional coal caps, and pollution reduction targets. The coal tracker will help them and a broad range of concerned citizens across China identify coal industry trends and ensure a cleaner energy future for all.

Find out more about Pacific Environment’s air pollution and coal work in China here.

 

 

Building a Cleaner China from the Grassroots Up

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

 

First published in China-US Focus

In a mid-sized industrial city in China, a staff member of the environmental group Green Hope answers her cell phone. On the line is a middle manager at Pearl Steel Group who is calling to ask about a report Green Hope issued on air pollution from the company’s nearby flagship steel plant. In recent years, the municipal environmental protection bureau had fined the plant several times for violations of their pollution permits, but Green Hope’s report – which details these violations alongside photo evidence and testimonials from rural residents living near the plant – finally spurred the company to take action. The company manager asks for a meeting with Green Hope staff to discuss how it might better control its pollution as well as more fully share environmental information with the public.

While this particular story is fictional, events of this kind, which were unthinkable even a few years ago, have become an increasingly common occurrence across China. Brought by stronger regulatory support for public engagement in environmental affairs and a widespread concern about China’s devastating levels of pollution, China’s local environmental groups are finding themselves well positioned to ensure that government promises for a cleaner, greener future are realized.

Space for grassroots environmental action in China has grown in recent years thanks to several key regulatory changes. The first is in the area of data sharing. Citizens are able to access more information than ever about pollution and polluters following the passage of  information disclosure laws in 2008. China’s newly revised environmental law, which came into force January 1, 2015, takes accountability a step further by requiring real-time disclosure of pollution discharge data from key industries. And since the law also allows the government to fine polluters more, and more often, factories that routinely discharge illegal amounts now face a regulatory system that could actually do damage to their bottom line.

The new environmental law also requires that governments respond to citizen accusations against polluters, and clarifies that non-governmental organizations have the right to bring environmental lawsuits. A recent Supreme Peoples’ Court interpretation confirmed that China’s local courts will now be instructed to hear cases brought by citizen groups, including public interest cases. Many environmental groups are positioning themselves to take advantage of this new sphere of action.

Meanwhile, air pollution has become so critical across China that last year Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution” and the State Council revealed a far-reaching Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. This included absolute limits on particulate pollution in certain regions of China, and bold wording on “widely mobilizing citizen participation” to help deal with the mounting crisis.

The national government of China is clearly sending a green light to citizen groups to take an active part in forging a more sustainable development path. But what happens region by region and city by city depends on how committed local government actors are to making tough changes – and the extent to which local watchdog groups (like Green Hope) are able to negotiate the space available for participation and advocacy.

One challenge is that local government officials are often unsure of the role civil society groups can and should play. In many cases, environmental groups can and do tactfully remind government departments about their duties to disclose information and listen to public concerns. And in fact, due to these efforts, many local environmental protection bureaus now see grassroots environmental groups as key allies, acting as “eyes and ears” on the ground, and bringing pressure for resolution of problems that officials have been unable to solve themselves.

But attitudes towards grassroots environmental groups varies between government departments as well as between regions. Where environmental enforcement is already a priority, such as developed regions along China’s coastline, citizen groups have an easier time making headway against polluters. For example, some local governments already have aggressive plans to phase out dirty energy; as with Hangzhou municipality’s “zero coal” plan which will phase out coal boilers in two years. In places like Hangzhou, local environmental groups have an important role to play in ensuring these government clean-up plans are enforced. But getting local governments in less-developed “energy frontier” regions to take better care of the environment can be more challenging. High profile scandals in coal development provinces of China have demonstrated some government officials are not only aware of industry misdeeds, they are themselves part of the problem.

More could certainly be done by China’s leaders to facilitate widespread citizen enforcement and engagement– such as enshrining participation principles in China’s next five year plan. But to a large extent China’s environmental groups are already succeeding at turning these principals into reality by setting up independent pollution monitoring networks, pollution reporting hotlines, and online pollution information platforms. Moreover, they are helping ordinary citizens become productively engaged in seeking solutions. For example, in September of 2014, the Beijing based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs released a cell phone app that allows citizens to monitor pollution discharge data in real time and draws the link between specific sources of air pollution and air quality. Just by releasing the app, some 65 industries came forward with a pledge to correct their pollution record.

More has to be done– China’s water and air pollution issues have never been more severe. But the good news is at least in some parts of China, long-time polluters are feeling the squeeze of robust pollution regulations combined with actual on-the-ground enforcement. And China’s grassroots environmental groups are usually the reason better enforcement happens.

Keeping the Amur River Wild and Free

Friday, December 12th, 2014

The Amur River is the largest, still free-flowing river in Asia, and its basin the most biodiverse region in Russia. But its vast forests, wetlands, and steppes, as well as its endemic tigers, leopards, cranes, and bears are threatened by a voracious demand for energy and natural resources.

Amur-River

Large-scale dam building threatens the mighty Amur River basin, the largest, still free-flowing river system in Asia.

 

Drawing on lessons learned over the past 25 years, Pacific Environment’s new report, Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East,  reflects the geographical and strategic priorities identified by some of the world’s most respected experts on the region.

In addition to Arctic ice ecosystems in Chukotka and salmon ecosystems throughout the Far East, the Amur River basin was selected as one of three high-priority regions for future conservation investments.

As the most promising strategies for success in the Amur River basin, the report’s experts recommend focusing on stopping proposed dams on the Amur River and quickly expanding the Amur’s protected areas to include its vast wetlands.

Eugene Simonov, a longtime partner of Pacific Environment, is a successful grassroots activists and one of the world’s foremost experts on the region. He is spearheading Rivers without Boundaries, a coalition of grassroots environmental groups from Russia, China, Mongolia, and the U.S. that seeks to preserve river basins in northeast Eurasia through joint advocacy and promotion of best practices in river management.

Eugene-Simonov

In the following Q&A, Eugene highlights the global importance of the Amur River basin.

Q: Why is the Amur River Basin so important for global conservation efforts?

BESIDES ITS OBVIOUS GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY VALUE and outstanding qualities of free-flowing river, the Amur is also an important example of sharp contrasts among countries—natural, cultural, economic, psychological. Russia, Mongolia, and China essentially belong to three different civilizational roots and each of the countries dominated the whole Amur Basin at one time in history. You can hardly find another river basin on Earth that is so deeply divided. You have the country with the biggest appetite for natural resources bordering countries that believe their resources are boundless. Yet they share one river ecosystem and understand they have to protect their common environment, despite the desire to extract and transport natural resources. The future of the Amur depends on where they strike the balance and whether they find adequate common language to agree on rules of cooperation. This is a unique experiment that has a lot to tell us about the solutions to global problems.

Q: The Amur Basin has a well-developed civil society and a wealth of scientists and experts working on conservation. But the region is so vast and there are so many conservation challenges, what is the ultimate priority?

FOR FRESHWATER ECOSYSTEMS, THE GREATEST PRIORITY is to agree on new ecologically sound objectives for common river basin management. Once upon a time, in 1986, Russia and China agreed to ruin this river completely by a chain of hydropower dams in the main stem. The Amur was saved partly because of mutual mistrust, and partly because of a huge educational effort undertaken by conservationists. We have yet to replace the mechanical ideal of artificial reservoirs generating energy with a more sustainable, mutually agreeable management goal.

Q: The 2013 flooding may have been good for the Amur River and its flora and fauna, but it devastated many communities, and resulted in new calls for more dams and flood control infrastructure. How can people value the natural river when it’s a threat to their livelihoods, even lives?

PEOPLE OF THEIR FREE WILL HAVE CHOSEN TO SETTLE IN FLOOD-PRONE AREAS because of their proximity to water, naturally fertilized floodplain soil, abundance of fish, and so on. They do value the natural river. Even at the height of the 2013 floods, polls showed that most people didn’t see dams as a remedy for floods. Funds that the government is now trying to earmark for building new dams could be better used for modernization and adaptation of riverine municipalities, so new settlement infrastructure and economy are better adapted to floods and droughts. Russian regions along the Amur do not lack land resources, so there are opportunities to avoid this conflict just by not building residences and production facilities in the floodplains.

Q: Even if Russian citizens and authorities were to implement the most rigorous conservation standards and practices, won’t China’s voracious appetites for raw materials still overwhelm the Russian Far East?

THE REAL QUESTION IS WHETHER RUSSIAN AND CHINESE AUTHORITIES and businesses could develop and enforce such rigorous standards and practices. The two countries share many environmental objectives (like tiger protection or river pollution prevention). Success is not granted, but quite feasible.

Our Top 7 Wins of 2014

Monday, December 8th, 2014

 

It has been a banner year for us and our local partners on the frontlines of environmental justice around the Pacific Rim.

Here are seven accomplishments I’m especially proud of; they would not have been possible without your support.


 

Bear and Kronotsky Volcano

Preserving Untouched Wilderness

The Russian Far East is a region of unparalleled wilderness, rich in biodiversity and vast intact ecosystems. But polar bears, walrus, tigers, and leopards are under threat from massive logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling projects. Over the past two years, we worked with dozens of scientists and grassroots activists to develop conservation plans that will help local people protect the region’s unique ecosystems, carbon-gulping forests, and endangered wildlife—even as the Russian government continues to increase the repression of local environmental heroes.

 


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Protecting the Arctic

We protected walrus, bowhead whales, narwhals, seals, polar bears, and other wildlife from the severe harm posed by increased ship traffic in Arctic seas. As a result of our hard-hitting advocacy at the United Nations agency responsible for writing international maritime laws, ships will not be allowed to dump garbage and oil in Arctic waters, and they will be required to avoid marine wildlife on their journey. We also won a historic commitment from the U.S. to help safeguard indigenous cultural and subsistence traditions in the Arctic.


 

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Attacking Pollution

We helped Chinese grassroots activists intensify and expand the scope of their watchdog and whistleblowing activities. Our partners are becoming ever more successful at identifying illegal industrial pollution that poisons the country’s water and air. Together with their growing networks of citizen volunteers, our partners feed pollution information to the media to pressure local governments and businesses to clean up their act. Our partners are also increasing their use of sophisticated legal tactics to seek justice for pollution victims in China’s courts.


 

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Safeguarding Endangered Whales

We halted attempts by the oil industry to weaken protections for the critically endangered Western gray whale when the industry tried to dismantle a panel of whale scientists. We frequently work with these scientists to ensure that oil drilling activities off the coast of Sakhalin Island in Russia’s sub-Arctic don’t push the remaining 150 whales to extinction.


 

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Exposing Corruption

We exposed a massive illegal coal base on the Tibetan Plateau. The story made international headlines after local government officials in China initially tried to cover it up for fear of being charged with corruption. Our exposure of the illegal coal base resulted in the closure of operations located within a natural reserve and stronger oversight of coal mining and processing activities in Western China.


 

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Challenging Shell Oil

We and our allies achieved a historic win when a federal court called into question the legality of the oil and gas leases the Bush administration sold to Shell and other oil companies in the mid-2000s. Following this win, Shell announced that it was cancelling its Arctic drilling plans for 2014. The company’s shareholders are also getting nervous—not least due to reports like Frozen Future, which we co-authored to expose the huge financial risks of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic’s treacherous waters.


 

Suren Gazaryan in Tallnin's Old Town, Estonia

Supporting Environmental Heroes

We successfully nominated our partner, Suren Gazaryan, for the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize—the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmental activists. Suren courageously called out Vladimir Putin and prominent Russian oligarchs for illegally building summer homes in national parks along Russia’s iconic Black Sea coast. He also battled illegal logging and construction in Sochi National Park for the 2014 Olympic Games.


 

Thank you for standing in solidarity with grassroots environmental leaders around the Pacific Rim!

New Strategies for Conservation Success in Russia

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

 

Russia’s Far East and Arctic are regions of unparalleled wilderness, rich in biodiversity and vast intact ecosystems. The region is also home to dozens of indigenous cultures, endangered wildlife, and forests so vast they are only rivaled by the Amazon’s.

Over the past two years, Pacific Environment has worked with dozens of community leaders, conservationists, and scientists to identify the best opportunities for conservation success in Russia’s Far East and Arctic.

Drawing on lessons learned over the past 25 years, our new report, Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East, establishes a forward-thinking set of priorities to help us, our partners on the ground, foundations, and allied organizations achieve important conservation successes in the next decade–even in a changing, and often difficult, political climate.

The report reflects the geographical and strategic priorities identified by some of the world’s most respected experts on the region:

arctic

ARCTIC ICE ECOSYSTEMS

Climate change is altering the Arctic’s ice-dependent ecology, threatening wildlife and indigenous cultures. The walrus is the cornerstone of indigenous economy and culture, since it is also the only source of food for local communities during severe Arctic winters. The report shows how indigenous communities and international conservationists can collaborate to protect walrus habitats and facilitate international policies to protect Arctic peoples and ecosystems.

 

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THE GREAT AMUR RIVER

The most biodiverse region in Russia, the Amur River’s vast forests and endemic tigers, leopards, cranes, and bears are threatened by a voracious demand for natural resources. Russian conservationists have been collaborating with Chinese counterparts to create international protected areas. The report recommends stopping proposed dams on the Amur River and quickly expanding the Amur’s protected areas to include its vast wetlands.

 

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SALMON STRATEGIES

The rivers in the Russian Far East are inhabited by more than half the world’s wild salmon. But the salmon’s survival is threatened by commercial-scale poaching and industrial pollution. In Sakhalin, a coalition of conservationists and commercial fishing companies created a park that protects the most important salmon rivers. In Kamchatka, indigenous peoples have teamed up with park rangers to arrest poachers. The report recommends quickly scaling up these initiatives to prevent the extinction of threatened salmon species.

 

In addition, the report includes a discussion of current conditions affecting conservation in the region, including systemic threats, legislation, politics, and international conservation policy and examples of recommended strategies and best practices, presented in the form of case studies of successful conservation initiatives.

 

Get your copy now!

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

FULL REPORT

 

 

Dirty Dollars: U.S. Tax Monies for a Coal Project Abroad Are Hurting People and the Environment

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
On October 21, 2014, Pacific Environment and allies Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, and Friends of the Earth U.S. released the results of an  investigation that revealed shocking new details on the catastrophic human rights, labor, and environmental violations at a coal project in India financed  by U.S. tax payers via the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank).
 

 

The report includes accounts from more than 25 local residents who became victims of relocation, violence, and disappearances and have suffered negative health impacts as a result of the construction and operation of Reliance Power’s Sasan coal-fired power plant and mine in Singrauli, India.

Ex-Im Bank, the U.S. Government’s largest trade promotion agency,  has provided over $900 million in financing for the project—using American taxpayer dollars to support this dirty and dangerous coal project. What’s worse, agency representatives just completed their first trip to Sasan last week, but refused to meet with affected people in the local communities.

Indian civil society organizations and U.S.-based groups have repeatedly alerted Ex-Im to the grave human rights violations taking place at Sasan, but the Bank has continually turned a deaf ear. But despite these allegations, Ex-Im has repeatedly refused to provide monitoring documents for Sasan, disregarding its own due diligence procedures and federal legislation requiring that these documents be made available upon request.

In response, our partner in this effort, the Sierra Club, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today to gain access to all records pertaining to Environmental and Social Management Plans for Sasan. This includes the supplemental environmental reports—encompassing both the remediation or mitigation plans and related monitoring reports—Reliance Power is required to submit for each coal project. Ex-Im has 30 days to respond to the request. Stay tuned for updates.

Pacific Environment has been a leader in challenging Ex-Im Bank’s investments in destructive energy projects around the globe. We  have helped uncover and challenge numerous human rights and environmental abuses, including ExxonMobil’s deadly natural gas pipeline project in Papua New Guinea.

READ MORE:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

FULL REPORT

 

Public Participation and Public Protest in China

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection recently reported that there was a 31% rise in mass environmental protests during 2013. The statistic highlights the growth of “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) environmentalism in China, and it comes as no surprise given already excessive pollution levels faced by communities across the country. To many, the prospect of a new chemical factory or coal plant next door feels like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Despite the fact that mass protests are illegal in China, they do sometimes succeed in stopping a new polluting factory, at least temporarily. The trend toward increased protests may also indicate broader frustration with the lack of meaningful public involvement in China’s environmental decision making. In a recent commentary on chinadialogue.net, Vice Environment Minister Li Ganjie is quoted as saying that protests are on the upswing because “the planning process in some areas and some departments may not be as scientific and rational as it should be” and projects “don’t share enough information with the public.”

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui distributes guides that help citizens protect themselves from industrial pollution

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui distributes guides that help citizens protect themselves from industrial pollution

Although the concept of public participation has been introduced over the past decade in China’s environmental regulatory framework, very few practical steps have been taken to engage citizens in reviewing new projects and their impacts, or in supervising implementation of pollution reduction goals. One challenge is that the Ministry of Environmental Protection itself has little experience in effectively working with the public, such as through public hearings and written comment processes. The May 2014 revisions of the country’s environmental law takes steps in the right direction by calling for public release of full Environmental Impact Assessments rather than just summaries, as well as mandating public disclosure of real time monitoring data from key polluting industries.

But more needs to be done, particularly when it comes to actually engaging the public in planning efforts. Currently, procedures for public review and comment on environmental impact assessments are so vague that it is easy for local officials to manipulate or side-step the public involvement requirement. Our partner, Green Stone Environmental Action Network, pointed out the many flaws of the process in a 2013 report on compliance with public participation requirements for environmental impact assessments for Jiangsu Province, a relatively advanced region when it comes to the implementation of environmental laws.

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan hosted a televised discussion on how to plan a greener future for Hunan Province

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan hosted a televised discussion on how to plan a greener future for Hunan Province

Reports such as these indicate there is much more that the Ministry of Environmental Protection and local environmental bureaus can do. At the same time, citizen groups themselves are playing a vital role in helping to create models for public participation. For example, around the time of release of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s report citing the rise in environmental protests, Beijing’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) held a press conference announcing a new tool for public monitoring of polluters. IPE’s mobile phone pollution map uses newly-available real time monitoring data released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and allows users to see daily pollution discharge data for major factories nearby. Armed with this data, it will be much easier for concerned citizens in China to track down specific polluters and put pressure on local governments to clean up pollution.

In addition, IPE and many local environmental groups in China cooperate in creating an annual Pollution Information Transparency Index, which ranks Chinese cities based on how well they are complying with public environmental disclosure rules. The rankings have successfully put pressure on local governments to improve their performance.

These types of citizen-led efforts have been so effective that they warrant the attention of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and China’s top leaders in their efforts to solve China’s critical pollution problems and address citizens’ concerns. Broader and more meaningful public participation in environmental affairs in China is a win-win proposition: it provides less risky and more long-term avenues for public expressions of dissatisfaction than mass protests, and it can result in direct and immediate improvements in China’s air and water quality.

 

Grassroots Organizations Will Help China Move Away From Coal

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

First Published in the Huffington Post

Co-authored by Dr. Sun Qingwei, Pacific Environment China Climate Coordinator

President Obama’s new carbon rule elicited a seemingly strong reaction from China:a pledge to institute a national carbon cap by 2016. But does China’s pledge have teeth? We argue yes, but only if grassroots organizations and citizens put increasing pressure on the government to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.

In the past decade, two key factors have helped improve China’s climate policies: international climate change negotiations and domestic political pressure to clean up pollution. At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Premier Wen Jiabao promised to cut carbon emissions 40-50% by 2020. This commitment resulted in the birth of China’s Renewable Energy Law, and specific coal reduction targets were introduced into China’s current Five Year Plan (2011-2015). If the United States takes further steps to demonstrate leadership at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, China will come under even greater pressure to curb its rising carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, Chinese citizens have grown more aware of the true costs of coal, namely life-threatening levels of pollution. Rising citizen concern over pollution has put pressure on the central government to better control climate-warming emissions and led to the 2013 State Council “Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control.” The plan demands the reduction of coal consumption by 2017 in the well-developed Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou regions. The plan also sets the target of coal providing less than 65% of national energy by 2017.

These positive signals–top level commitments to curb carbon emissions and localized coal reduction policies–have led many to be optimistic that China is on track to wean itself off of coal. But when we look at what’s going on inside China, this optimism feels premature. First, despite official national plans to curb coal, coal production has actually continued to grow, increasing from 2.2 billion metric tons (bmt) in 2005, to 3.24 bmt in 2010, to 3.68 bmt in 2013. The current planned target for coal production–3.9 bmt per year by 2015–would set another historical high.

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New coal bases in water-scarce western China are a grave threat to agricultural communities. credit: Sun Qingwei

Second, while the central government has ordered some areas to reduce coal consumption, 14 new “coal bases” are simultaneously being built across China. These bases include giant coal mines, power plants, coal chemical complexes, long distance electricity transportation networks, oil pipelines, and gas pipelines. The bases are a component of official energy development policy, as reiterated as recently as June 13, 2014 by China’s Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, the top economic body led by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Furthermore, the State Council’s ambitious air pollution plan has faced major setbacks due to a lack of enforcement. For example, the plan calls for Shijiazhuang, the capital city of industrialized Hebei Province, to reduce consumption of coal by 15 million tons by 2017. To reach this goal, Shijiazhuang was to reduce coal consumption by 3 million tons in 2013, but instead the city’s coal consumption increased by 1 million tons.

The coal industry in China is moving forward with what amounts to a “business as usual” approach, and much more needs to be done to shift China toward a cleaner energy future. This is where grassroots environmental organizations come in. We already know that public concern over air pollution and data transparency was a key driver in the central government’s decision to control coal use in some regions. Since Pacific Environment started working in China 15 years ago, we have seen local environmental groups become increasingly effective at finding and shutting down polluters, and public awareness of coal pollution impacts keeps expanding. The time is ripe to further increase local citizen pressure on coal using the following four strategies:

1) Information disclosure and transparency: Following years of campaigning by local environmental groups, citizens across China are now able to access more information than ever about pollution and polluters. For example, this past June, the Beijing-based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs launched a pollution map application for mobile phones that allows citizens to monitor pollution emissions in real time–including from coal plants.

2) Legal tools: China’s newly revised Environmental Protection Law, which will take effect on January 1, 2015, allows governments to fine polluters more heavily and more frequently. It also requires that local and regional governments respond to citizen accusations against polluters, and it clarifies that nongovernmental organizations have the right to bring environmental lawsuits.

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Local group Green Hunan wins award for their innovative efforts to go after illegal polluters by building a volunteer monitoring network. Credit: Green Hunan

3) Government monitoring: Many local governments have already set coal reduction targets. Grassroots environmental groups are well-positioned to monitor progress on reaching these targets and to ensure that laggards institute effective coal reduction plans. For example, Hangzhou municipality has a “zero coal” plan that will phase out all coal boilers within two years. Local group Green Zhejiang is monitoring the operation of coal boilers and will report violations of the phase-out plan to local officials.

4) Coal industry investigations: Local environmental protection bureaus often have little incentive, and even less capacity, to investigate pollution problems caused by coal. Grassroots environmental groups can help fill this gap. For example, in 2013 an investigation of Shenhua’s Ordos coal to oil factory conducted by environmental groups found that the company was illegally using groundwater and discharging sewage. A resulting central government investigation forced Shenhua (the world’s biggest coal company) to stop its groundwater grab.

Weak enforcement of existing coal reduction policies, and the fact that top policy makers remain quietly committed to coal, make it too early to declare that China is moving away from coal. If anything can make a real difference, it is stronger citizen pressure which is generally a more effective driver of change in China than international negotiations and other top-down policy-making tactics. That is why, if we as an international community care about our future climate, we must do more to support local efforts in China rather than relying on international negotiations alone to solve the climate problem.

Pacific Environment Welcomes Sun Qingwei as China Climate Coordinator

Friday, May 30th, 2014

 

China has recently been generating a tremendous amount of news because of its pressing need to decrease air pollution and build a clean energy future. This is a heavy undertaking, as China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of coal.  To help reduce coal pollution in China, Pacific Environment just hired Sun Qingwei, who will lead our training and organizing efforts with local environmental groups in China.

Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Growing up in the coal mining region of Shandong, Sun Qingwei witnessed first-hand the health and environmental problems associated with coal production. After receiving a Ph.D. in Physical Geography, Sun Qingwei worked as a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he studied land degradation caused by intensive human activities. It was because of his research that Sun Qingwei realized it was time to make a change in China, so he left academia to become a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace.

I sat down with Sun Qingwei to learn more about the coal pollution problems in China and what local communities can do to help decrease China’s reliance on coal.

Sun Qingwei joins Pacific Environment as our new China Climate Coordinator. He will train and organize local environmental groups in China to reduce coal pollution.

Sun Qingwei joins Pacific Environment as our new China Climate Coordinator. He will train and organize local environmental groups in China to reduce coal pollution.


 

Caroline: Welcome to the Pacific Environment team! We have heard so much about China’s coal consumption and poor air quality in the news. Has the air pollution problem changed people’s perceptions in China about using coal?

Qingwei:  China’s public movement against air pollution has made it more possible to reduce coal use in China. Still, the majority of people don’t realize that air pollution is related to coal. People need more information to understand that air pollution is due to coal, and they need to realize that it’s possible to change the infrastructure to use less coal and switch to renewable energy. Part of my job is helping people recognize such change is possible.

 

Caroline: You grew up in a coal mining town. Can you tell me what living there was like?

Qingwei: I think where I grew up was similar to coal mining areas all over the world—very dirty! But my parents did what they had to do to support our family. I felt that coal was a part of my life, but after I graduated from college, I realized maybe we can live without pollution—and without coal—and that we have better choices. At that time, I was researching sustainable development, but I was frustrated with the pace of change and that’s why I wanted to move to the NGO sector.

 

Caroline: In your reports for Greenpeace [where Qingwei previously worked], you examined how China’s coal sector impacts water in China. Can you explain what the problems are?

Qingwei: Water in China is scarce. In northern China, the lack of water is causing land degradation, harming rural communities. These communities rely on the land for their livelihood and as groundwater decreases, farmers lose their grazing lands and their wells dry up. The government just built several major river diversion projects, through the creation of dams, to transport water from southern to northern China, partially to help alleviate this problem. But now new coal mines and new coal-to-chemical plants are being built in the most arid regions of China, where they are worsening water scarcity by grabbing water [including water transferred from southern China] from rural communities.

 

Caroline: What do you consider to be one of the most satisfying victories against coal during your NGO career so far?

Qingwei: About two years ago, when I was working for Greenpeace, we began to investigate China’s biggest coal company, Shenhua. We knew it produced coal-to-liquid fuel (diesel) at its plant in Inner Mongolia, which is a very dry area. Producing liquid fuels from coal is a very water intensive process. Shenhua was tapping groundwater and, in the process, had already destroyed 2,000 local wells. In addition, the livelihoods of more than 5,000 farmers and sheep herders were threatened by grassland degradation, which was also caused by Shenhua’s groundwater depletion.

We launched an investigation and released a report that demonstrated Shenhua’s responsibility for destroying the grasslands and harming local agricultural communities that depend on them. After 30 days, the report was censored by the central government, but just last month, we got a message directly from the company saying that they had decided to stop using groundwater for coal processing in that location. We realized that despite being censored, our message had been heard by top leaders and resulted in political pressure on Shenhua. The leaders at the company became nervous because this was not the only case where they were grabbing groundwater from a local community. In fact, there are many such projects in other parts of China and coal companies don’t want to draw too much attention to them, which is why Shenhua’s leaders compromised. This was the first time that we have had a win against the number one coal company in China.

qingwei land

Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Prior to joining Pacific Environment, he worked with Greenpeace to expose how China’s largest coal company, Shenhua was depleting Inner Mongolia of groundwater.

 

Caroline: What do you think is the most effective strategy in China to reduce coal production and consumption?

Qingwei: There are two important strategies. First, Beijing-based lobbying which focuses on economic arguments for switching to more renewable energy. Some NGOs and research institutions are already doing this. A second critical strategy is putting pressure on the government by mobilizing public concern over air and water pollution, and this is where local NGOs can have a big impact. Pacific Environment is working with local groups to identify sources of coal pollution and make the connection with air and water pollution. The next step is cleaning up or closing pollution sources, or pushing for local governments to replace dirty energy with cleaner energy. This kind of action will put bottom-up pressure on local governments and national policy makers to take bolder steps.

 

Caroline: Do you think increasing public awareness about the harmful impacts of coal will help?

Qingwei: Yes, I think most people need more knowledge of the problems caused by coal. Once they have this knowledge, they will be more motivated to create change.

 

Caroline: How do you think communities can play a role in reducing China’s coal use?

Qingwei: Any change needs a motivating force. To change from dirty energy to clean energy, we need to persuade the coal companies to invest in cleaner energy. I think community groups can create such political pressure based on their need for clean air and clean water. As a first step, communities can push for greater government transparency of energy policies, and pollution sources, by using China’s information disclosure laws.

 

Caroline: What are you looking to accomplish at Pacific Environment in the next 12 months?

Qingwei: When I joined Pacific Environment, I already knew we had a very good network of grassroots partner organizations in China. So my role is to help build the network’s capacity to address the coal challenge. I also want to grow this network, because the challenge is huge and requires the efforts of a wide range of NGOs.

“The Wise Love Water”: A Day in the Life of a River Volunteer in China

Friday, May 16th, 2014

 

Yu Lixiang asked me to meet him on a sunny afternoon in March on the banks of the Xiang River. He waited for me by a bridge where he was making a routine stop to test the water quality of the Xiang River, the main freshwater artery flowing through China’s eastern Hunan Province.

The spot Yu Lixiang and I were exploring had been selected as a monitoring point because it is near one of Changsha’s municipal drinking water inlets, and water quality is threatened by industrial pollution sources upstream. Yu Lixiang has been to this spot dozens of times to check water quality, and local fishermen seem to know him, telling him in the local Changsha dialect about changes they have observed in the river day to day.

Yu Lixiang, of Xiang River Watch, preparing to take a water sample of the Xiang River in Hunan Province.

River monitor Yu Lixiang is preparing to take a water sample of the Xiang River near Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha.

In his fifties, Yu Lixiang jumped lightly from rock to rock along the river bank as we started the monitoring process. After snapping a few photos of the river and its surroundings, he took out test strips from his waist bag to collect data on the pH of the river. “Today the pH, at this point along the Xiang River, is 6—not bad”, Yu Lixiang said. Then he carefully recorded the findings in his notebook. (Pure water has a pH very close to 7.)

River monitor Yu Lixiang is testing the water quality of the Xiang River near Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha with a simple pH testing kit that is used by thousands of volunteers across China to identify pollution and pressure governments and businesses to clean up their act.

Yu Lixiang is testing the water quality of the Xiang River with a simple pH testing kit that is used by thousands of volunteers across China to identify river pollution and pressure governments and businesses to clean up their act.

Yu Lixiang is one of a growing number of citizens who participate in volunteer networks to help clean up China’s rivers. “Teacher Yu,” as Yu Lixiang is affectionately known by his fellow volunteers, is the leader of the Changsha city team in the network known as the “Xiang River Watch.”

The members of Xiang River Watch all share the same dream: that one day all rivers in Hunan Province can be cleaned up and protected. The network was founded by Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan three years ago to mobilize citizens from all walks of life to watchdog water pollution—a grave environmental threat in China.

Today, 92 volunteers participate in Xiang River Watch’s local teams to patrol the main stem and the eight major tributaries of the Xiang River every day. On average, the teams find and investigate eight pollution incidents per week.

Over the past three years, the Changsha city team alone has reported over 600 pollution violations on Weibo.com, a popular social networking site used by an increasing number of Chinese citizens to bring attention to environmental problems. Last year, Green Hunan and Xiang River Watch volunteers not only found and reported hundreds of polluters, they also successfully pushed for cleanup of over 30 individual pollution sources through closure of polluting factories or installments of new pollution control technologies.

River monitoring volunteers use Weibo.com to publicize pollution problems. This post shows untreated construction wastewater entering the Xiang River near Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in southeastern China.

River monitoring volunteers use Weibo.com to publicize pollution problems. This post shows untreated construction wastewater entering the Xiang River near Changsha.

In 2010, Yu Lixiang read about Green Hunan and Xiang River Watch in a newspaper and immediately decided to volunteer. He told me that his ancestors settled along the banks of the Xiang River hundreds of years ago. And  he pointed out that locals throughout water-rich southern China often call the great rivers that flow by their doors “Mother River,” and that’s how the Xiang River is known in this part of Hunan. Yu Lixiang traces his love of rivers back to his childhood. He was born by the Xiang River, his “Mother River,” and that’s why he feels a natural connection with the river. Standing by the river, he smiled as he quoted one of Confucius’s sayings to me, “The wise love water!”

When Yu Lixiang was young, he went swimming in the Xiang River every summer. At that time, the river was clean and beautiful. But in the 1990s—a time of economic boom throughout China—the river started to fill with trash and began to smell bad. That’s when Yu Lixiang had to give up swimming and started walking along the river instead.

Protecting the water and being close to the river was already his way of life, so it wasn’t surprising that he decided to join Green Hunan as a volunteer. “If there had been an environmental group earlier, I would have joined earlier,” he said.

But volunteer work is not without challenges for Yu Lixiang. Because most volunteers are much younger, he used to worry about fitting in. It also took him a while to become familiar with social media, which the volunteers use to publicize their pollution findings. But now he takes the lead in reporting his team’s results online.

Speaking about his team’s next challenges, Yu Lixiang told me about a new wastewater treatment plant being installed nearby. “I plan to push for better disclosure of information about its operations,” he said. Right now, 300,000 tons of wastewater are discharged into the Xiang River without treatment every day. Yu Lixiang believes that once the new treatment plant is in operation, it will take some close monitoring of the treated water to ensure that the water is actually pollution-free before it enters the Xiang River.

Yu Lixiang wants to inspire more people to join a river monitoring network and also to expand his own efforts; this summer, he plans to carry out field investigations at the headwaters of tributaries of the Xiang River. His personal dream is to one day go and see the famed Sanjiangyuan region, where China’s other great rivers—the Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow—originate high in the Tibetan plateau.

Thanks to Yu Lixiang and many others like him, the Xiang River and other rivers throughout China are getting a second chance. Pacific Environment is helping grassroots environmental groups across China grow networks of citizen monitors that are ever more effective at stopping polluters and cleaning up rivers.